Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TrustMovies' year-end don't-miss list of independents, documentaries and foreign films


Updated as of January 17: It's not a "Best" List because I haven't seen nearly all the films released in 2014. Nor has any critic. So "grain-of-salt" it, people, please. Below are the movies -- mostly the small ones, along with a few bigger ones that, in my view, actually deserve their status -- that you really ought to catch in some form or other, from streaming to DVD to a possible theatrical encounter. I begin with probably the smallest film of all, which is also among the very best of this year. (Click on each title link, and it should open up into my post on the film.)

Now, there are 68 movies in all. That's hardly a ten-best list, but it does represent the films I think are worth mentioning again and definitely worth your checking out. Some appear here because they are the kind of small independent movies -- docs or narratives -- that many will not have even heard of, and yet they are so good that they must be pointed out. A few of these are genre films -- the terrific little thriller Not Safe for Work and the loony-tunes funny Stretch -- that never even received a theatrical release (that I could discover) but went straight to streaming and are such good examples of their genres that they ought to be seen and enjoyed. Others -- Boyhood (below), NightcrawlerWinter Sleep (above), Force Majeure and Snowpiercer -- have already been cited by many critics, and now I must cite them, too.

You may notice that certain popular or much acclaimed films (Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Leviathan, The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything) are not listed. These are perfectly good movies but are nowhere near the best or most interesting of my movie-going year. I have now seen both Selma (a little too close to history-as-feel-good-schlock for my taste) and Into the Woods (much better than its original Broadway version: one of Sondheim's lesser scores, but as used smartly here, it provides a chance for actors to sing well and give meaning to the story much better than did the stage version). Mr Turner and American Sniper still remain unseen; I'll probably wait for their Blu-ray incarnation. And there's one film, The Bag Man (a still is shown below) that is simply so much better than its crap reviews would indicate that I just had to include it. (Reach Me is another good example of our current negative-critical-mass-thinking about a very enjoyable film that I came close to including, too.)

With the exception of the first film listed below (which was, for me, the most special of the year, a still from which is shown at top), the rest are listed in the order in which I viewed them beginning last January. (*The asterisk indicates that the film was not officially released last year; however, 2014 was the year in which I managed to see it.)

The ** double asterisk at the bottom of this list indicates a film, above, I left out because it was one I did not cover at the time of its release due to a certain PR person's neglecting to invite me to the press screening. I saw it later on my own dollar -- or ten -- but then forgot to mention it, though it is a best-of-year movie under just about any criteria you can offer.


THE LIST

Magical Universe

Key of Life

*Pictures of Superheroes

*The History of Future Folk

Lucky Bastard

Child's Pose

*Dean Spanley

The Bag Man

Particle Fever

Rob the Mob

Afflicted

Locke

Southern Baptist Sissies

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

The Selfish Giant

Trust Me

God's Pocket

A Short History of Decay

Frequencies

The Players

AGNES VARDA: From Here to There

Master of the Universe

Dormant Beauty

A Coffee in Berlin

Romeo and Juliet

Third Person

Code Black

Snowpiercer

The Internet's Own Boy

After the Dark

The Last Days

*20 Cigarettes

Magic in the Moonlight

Boyhood

Honour

A Five-Star Life

A Master Builder

The Dog

Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering

The Den

Rocks in My Pockets

Wetlands

Pay 2 Play

Bird People

Art and Craft

Pride

Diplomacy

Rudderless

Eternity

Force Majeure

Begin Again

Viva la Libertà

Nightcrawler

The Circle

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Not Safe for Work

The Babadook

LFO: The Movie

Miss Julie

The Foxy Merkins

Stretch

The Joe Show

Winter Sleep

*Satellite

Two Days, One Night

*The Jewel

A Most Violent Year

**The Grand Budapest Hotel

Note: an important film just opened this week that is almost certain to make my best-of-year for 2015. As it is a small independent movie and will probably disappear without much of a trace, I suggest that you try to see it ASAP, if possible. If not, watch for the eventual DVD/streaming release.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

DVDebut: From TLA, two new gay movies, SNAILS IN THE RAIN and THE THIRD ONE


You can always count on TLA for a constant flow of GLBT films. The quality may vary (a lot) but the movies just keep on comin'. Last month saw the appearance of a couple of new-to-DVD releases that just might be worth your time.  SNAILS IN THE RAIN, a rather silly and not particularly appealing title explained only by the final scene of the movie (and even then it's mostly a big "huh?"), takes place in Israel back in the late 1980s and is all about homosexual panic on the part of its protagonist, a young hunk of a linguistics student on the verge of obtaining a much-wanted scholarship and living happily, or so it would seem, with his beautiful girlfriend.

THE THIRD ONE (El tercero), from the looks of its cover art and subject matter (a gay threesome), seems initially like the typical low-end GLBT title meant mostly to turn on its viewers. Instead, it's genuine surprise and a keeper, too: a movie that takes its characters more seriously than its sex (though both here are pretty damn good), pulls us in by virtue of interesting storytelling, writing and performances, and leaves us on as high and thoughtful a note as it does its youngest protagonist, a student who becomes involved with an older gay couple.

The meat of this short (71-minute) movie, written and directed with style, flair and suirprise by Rodrigo Guerrero, occurs over one evening and into the following morning. Earlier, the older couple (Franco and Hernán) has interacted with young Fede over the internet and invited him for dinner and... whatever.

The scene over dinner is actually the high point of the movie because it so beautifully and believably reveals character, motivation, back-story, the works. The filmmaker shoots most of it from the POV of Fede (a lovely job from Emiliano Dionisi, above, center) as he watches for clues about the life of gay adults (at 22, he's around half the age of his hosts). For their part, the older couple (played by Nicolás Armengol, above, left, and Carlos Echevarría, right) offer Fede everything they can -- from food to information to sex. These are, all three, good men, trying to negotiate their lives with decency and caring. Consequently, spending time with them is a pleasure.

Orson Welles is said to have told us that if you want a happy ending, this all depends on where you stop your film. Guerrero smartly ends his the morning after a lovely, productive, highly sexual night in which all three men have experienced pleasure and caring, each for the other two. Whatever is to come will no doubt be fraught with some change and disappointment. But for now, a new world has opened up for these guys.

In casting his film, Guerrero insists on men who are certainly attractive but not model-pretty with gym-toned bodies. This adds enormously to the movie's believability. The Third One -- from Argentina and in Spanish with English subtitles -- is available now on DVD from TLA, for purchase or rental. Oddly enough, the movie contains some very brief hardcore scenes (of other actors, not its main cast) during the initial web chat that begins the film, as a kind of object lesson, I guess, in what young Fede wants or can expect. This also frees the three leads to perform as genuinely and enjoyably as they want or can, since no full frontal views of these three men are to be seen in the actual film.

Snails in the Rain is another matter entirely. Though its story is a good deal darker than that of The Third One -- its young protagonist begins receiving daily  "I love you" letters (below) from an anonymous admirer, and soon his whole identity, personality and life is thrown for a loop -- its ability to handle this subject seriously is questionable. Beginning with the casting and use of leading man (Yoav Reuveni), with his model-pretty face and body-beautiful good looks, we're in "movie" reality.

Further, director and co-writer (with Yossi Avni Levy) Yariv Mozer keeps sticking that body -- as unclothed as possible (save any full-frontal shots) at almost all times -- in front of us to drool over. And drool we do. Mr. Reuveni is sho' 'nuf one hot guy.

As the letters pile up and the character's desire for a little homosexual fun clashes with his utter panic, we get one after another flashback to former times, in which something almost happened (above), or a scene in current times (like the one below) in which something almost does. Meanwhile, his poor girlfriend gets the brunt of his forbidden desires -- nicely in a bathtub or nastily, from behind over a kitchen table.

Character, however, is something that really doesn't surface here. Instead we get the physical incarnation, nifty as this is, but little emotion or depth other than that same old fear that keeps surfacing. Over and over and over. The question of who is sending the letters is fairly easy to guess and eventually comes out -- to a bit of suspense but little real effect.

Snails in the Rain -- in Hebrew with English subtitles and running 85 minutes -- is available now from TLA for sale or rental.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

J. C. Chandor's notable A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: Saving the not-quite-best film for the last


Writer/director J.C. Chandor is making quite the name for himself -- with movies hugely acclaimed by the critics (myself included) while not setting the box-office afire. That might change just a bit (but not by much, I'm afraid) with the release of his third film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, which has been chosen by the National Board of Review (NBR) as the best film of 2014. Looking over the NBR's record for the past 20 years, I find the group has generally made wise choices for Best Film, with Finding Neverland and Quills the only real ringers. (Those films had certain qualities, but "best"? Please.) The NBR even managed to produce a very wise tie in 1994, honoring both Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction -- a choice of quality both old and new.

Mr. Chandor (the filmmaker is shown at left) sets his newest endeavor in New York City back in 1981, which is said to have been the most violent year on record for NYC. Oddly enough, what distinguishes A Most Violent Year -- other than it's being very well written and directed (both by Chandor) and well acted by a talented ensemble -- is how very non-violent it turns out to be, given that the threat of same hangs over the entire movie. It also takes us into an industry into which we seldom venture: that of the fuel oil business. Evidently, back in 1981, trucks delivering fuel oil were being robbed repeatedly (below), while their drivers were often hurt in the process (further below). The particular driver we see here in both shots is played by a very good actor, Elyes Gabel, and it is his role and his performance that give the movie its beating heart.

I learned more than I would have imagined possible about the fuel oil business while watching this film, which was, back in that decade, at least -- if what we see and hear in the movie can be believed -- controlled by a few leading families, most of whom were involved in criminal activity to a greater or lesser extent.

The actual stars of the film are Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain (shown below and further below), playing Abel and Anna Morales, the husband/wife owners of a relatively new fuel oil firm that is about to do a make-or-break deal which should insure its major growth. Both actors are, as always, very fine, with Mr. Issac (on screen most of the time) keeping his character and emotions quite close to the vest, as Abel attempts to curtail these robberies without resorting to any kind of illegal revenge.

Anna (Ms Chastain), on the other hand, comes from a high-level mob family and encourages Abel to do anything he must to right the situation, including, if necessary, using her family to help. But no, Abel is intent on succeeding on his own "honest" terms.

Is this even possible? The movie exists to answer that question, and the answer we get, as you might expect from Chandor, not to mention the situation itself, is anything but simple. As the film proceeds, we meet some of the Morales' friends, co-workers, competitors and police investigators (there are some fine supporting performances here from the likes of Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola and David Oyewolo), and we end up with yet another lesson -- one of the better ones -- about the costs of obtaining the American Dream.

Ms Chastain's role (unless much of it ended up on the cutting room floor) does not allow her much else than being an attractive, sexy nudge -- a smart one, but a nudge nonetheless. The movie belongs to its men, as has all three of Chandor's films, and they all come through with flying colors, each character offering up a different approach to violence and to the situation in which they're all involved.

Issac continues to grow as one of our most intelligent, tamped-down and subtle actors. Interestingly, his charisma can be seen most effectively in a twatty little pseudo-blockbuster like Sucker Punch, in which his Blue Jones character runs riot (watch this film to its conclusion and end credits, just to see him and Carla Gugino cut loose). I wish somebody would write Issac a role in which he could really fly. Clearly, he's got the wings.

Meanwhile, A Most Violent Year -- from A24 and running 125 minutes -- opens this Wednesday, December 31, in New York City at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. In Los Angeles, look for it The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. A wider release will hit theaters across the country in the weeks to come.

Michael Radford's ELSA & FRED, based on the better Spanish original, arrives on Blu-ray/DVD


It's never too late to fall in love. So, there. And if that idea appeals, this remake, ELSA & FRED -- from the original and internationally popular geriatric-rom-com of the same name from Argentina and Spain (made way back in 2005 but not receiving a theatrical release in the USA until 2008) -- should do the trick. If you were lucky enough to see the original film, which starred two aged and much-loved performers from, respectively, South America and Spain -- China Zorrilla and Manuel Alexandre -- you'll immediately understand why the casting of Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer is both appropriate (these are two of our biggest, English-speaking, geriatric stars, after all) and much less interesting. MacLaine and Plummer look about as fit as possible -- svelte and attractive, given their age -- and absolutely made for each other. So what's the problem? The problem is: There ain't one.

In the original film (you can read my review of it for Greencine here), Zorrilla and Alexandre were, physically and emotionally, like oil and water: he a quiet, closed-off and aged runt, she a zaftig hurricane of a woman with enough vitality to blow anyone off the screen. How the two become close is fraught with problems that take the entire film to work out, and by its close, the movie leaves you in tears even while you're chuckling. In this remake, as good and glossy as it is -- the generally smart screenplay is by director Michael Radford (shown at left) and Anna Pavignano (who co-wrote the wonderful Casomai) -- the coupling seems a fait accompli from the outset. And while it is indeed amusing to watch these two old pros deliver their lines and have some fun doing it, all the quirkiness, the sadness and only-barely-hidden despair brought to the original by its two stars goes missing.

But let's concentrate on what's in the remake, shall we? MacLaine and Plummer (shown above and below) offer their usual spirited charm, as well as their usual (of late) crotchety onriness. If we don't quite buy Elsa's insistent dream of going to Italy's Trevi Fountain and playing the Anita Ekberg role in La Dolce Vita, that's probably because MacLaine seems far too smart for something like this. (Zorrilla had the vulnerability and girth, emotionally and physically, to make this work). Here, it seems a bit tacked-on.

The supporting cast surrounding our pair is certainly worthy, too: everyone from Marcia Gay Harden to Chris NothScott Bakula to George Segal and James Brolin -- plus a nice little sub-plot concerning Fred's caretaker (played by Erika Alexander) and the building's superintendent (Wendell Pierce).

So, if you're in the mood for a geriatric rom-com with classy performers and a decent script, by all mean take a chance on this light and very dispensible movie. The original, however -- available on DVD via Netflix or Amazon -- is more of a keeper.

From Millennium Entertainment and running 97 minutes, Elsa & Fred arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday, December 30 -- for sale or rental via the usual suspects.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg/James Franco's THE INTERVIEW: Relax, it's worth the $6 stream


The first maybe 25 minutes of the much-bandied-about movie, THE INTERVIEW, is so on-target and funny that you're going to be shocked that the comedy didn't get better reviews. Most audiences, it seems, are going to the film -- in theaters, at least -- to help champion freedom of speech. Or, in this case, freedom of watch. That's commen-dable -- though one might wish for this kind of support in turning back climate change. Still, this new movie, with a screenplay by Dan Sterling, is certainly the "film of the year," so far as making news is concerned.

What with its distributor, Sony, doing back flips and pretzel twists in order to somehow "make everything all right," the fact that the film has ended up on theaters screens and digital streaming for the holidays seems a major accomplishment, considering all that has gone before (much of it for which Sony itself can take credit). After initially blaming North Korea for the hacking, it now seems more likely that Sony insiders (or ex-insiders) might be responsible for the hacking and leakage. Whatever eventually comes out, the movie, co-directed by Evan Goldberg (shown at right) and its co-star Seth Rogen (below, right) begins on such a fast-paced, funny and high note that you will fear it cannot possibly maintain this pace and humor for its full length. And you'd be right.

The reason for this, from what I can ascertain, is that its co-directors, writer, and co-star/co-executive producer (James Franco, above, left, and below, right) know and care a hell of a lot more about celebrity, success and the Hollywood life than they do about North Korea. Consequently, when the movie concentrates on satirizing the former, it is riotous and on the mark. When it reaches North Korea, about half an hour in, it relies mostly on the usual blather about that sad, dictatorial little country and, plot-wise, offers up the usual coincidence, cliche, and mostly silly nonsense of every other ordinary, tired, would-be action comedy.

Don't get me entirely wrong: There are some funny moments that take place in the Korean section. But these are too few and far between to count for much overall. Plus, the humor here relies so flagrantly on fart, poop and butthole references that one does begin to wonder, after a time, how not-so-wide-ranging are the interests of these filmmakers. What they care about most seems to concern what comes out of (and goes into) the male anus. To each his own, as they say.

The North Korea section is funniest, again, when Franco and filmmakers stick to the travails of celebrity, in which the pudgy little dictator, Kim Jong-un (played quite charmingly/nastily by Randall Park, above, center) appears to find himself enmeshed. Otherwise the movie relies on the obvious and usual: women as sex objects (more like beards for the over-the-top homo-eroticism between our boys) and blowing things up. There's even a cutesy dog (below) used for cuddly irony.

One wonders, after awhile, why the writer could not have spent a tad more time trying to come up with even a remotely believable scenario. Instead, our twosome gets into North Korea so easily and manages to outwit its rather small cadre of dictator-protectors with no problem whatsoever. (Even the expected cavity search of the Rogen character -- he's carrying a small missile up his ass -- is not done at the moment when it obviously should be. Then, rather stupidly, that search is mentioned after the fact.)

If Rogen merely does his usual good work, Mr. Franco comes through with flying colors. The actor is sensationally good at kidding his own image, calling to question the reality of each situation by milking it for every bizarre layer. He is getting to be a master at this sort of thing -- while entertaining us like crazy. So, if you miss its Christmas theatrical run, you can stream The Interview online as we did (via YouTube) for just six bucks. That's a hell of a lot cheaper than paying $23 (the typical price for two senior tickets here in NYC), and you can cuddle on the couch while you view.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Streaming tip -- Andrea Molaioli's THE JEWEL: Toni Servillo and Italian corporate malfeasance


I wasn't much taken with Andrea Molaioli's earlier (and award-winning) movie The Girl by the Lake, so I am happy to report that his newer film, THE JEWEL (Il Gioiellino), now available to stream via Netflix, is a keeper -- all about Italian skullduggery in the corporate sector that may remind viewers who possess a little European history of the Parmalat dairy empire scandal that rocked Italy (and much of the Western world) back in 2003. Names have certainly been changed, as well as the time frame, but there is no mistaking the resemblances to certain people, living or dead, that bounce and romp across the screen, as the ever-entitled one per cent again stiffs the rest of us 99ers -- taking a few of their own along with them in the process. (That's filmmaker Molaioli, shown below.)

The other thing that makes this movie stand-out is its central perfor-mance by one of Italy's acting greats, Toni Servillo -- who, by now, has given just about every kind of amazing performance you can think of -- Il Divo to It Was the Son to his set of twins in the recent Viva la libertà -- and this guy just keeps getting better and better. (Probably Servillo's least interesting performance is in Molaioli's own Girl by the Lake.)

The Jewel begins almost at the end of things, then flashes back to, if not their beginning, at least a good ways into when the trouble bubbled to the surface. The director's style here is flashy -- but to a point. He weaves together all the pomp and PR with the use of politicians and religion, economics and accounting, and even a looks at some of the actual products created here -- finally creating a huge carpet of deception and avarice that would not be out of place in modern Russia. (One of the characters we meet even suggests Russia as an appropriate retirement spot for the company's CEO, played with infinite savoir faire and sleaze by Remo Girone, above).

Signore Servillo, above, plays the firm's expert accountant, a man who certainly knows his way around "creative bookkeeping," but who also turns out to be among the most decent of the film's many males. His relationship with a younger and quite attractive worker, who is also the niece of the reigning titan, becomes something much more interesting than we usually get in movies of this sort, and Servillo and his co-star, Sarah Felberbaum (below) make the most of it.

Given the complications of the plot and the machinations of all sorts from all angles, Molaioli is nonetheless able to keep us -- not simply understanding what is going on but also glued to the screen by all the greed, glamor and betrayals on view.  This is heady stuff, brought to a fine boil by the writer/director and his co-scribes, Ludovica Rampoldi and Gabriele Romagnoli.

Considering the number of characters here and the several sub-plots -- all of which lead us back to the central company, Leda, and its "output" -- by the film's strangely unsettling and moving finale, we've received a nasty but salutary education in Italian business. And maybe some understanding of what happened in that Parmalat fiasco.

The Jewel, running a fast-paced 110 minutes, is available now via Netflix streaming and probably elsewhere, too.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas present from Minnesota (but one you can't unwrap just yet): Dave Ash's 2021


It's always nice -- in addition to covering filmmakers based in California, New York and countries all around the world -- to have an independent movie-maker from some of the culturally lesser-known American states check in with us here at TrustMovies. Earlier this year we heard from Oklahoma via a lovely little narrative film called Home, James. Arizona's been represented by the taste-free Pizza Shop: The Movie and a nice little documentary, Underwater Dreams. And now, on Christmas Day we're covering a film (his second) from Minnesota-based filmmaker, Dave Ash. If his 2021 (the title doubles as the year the film takes place) is any indication, this oft-frozen state is a hotbed of sublime talent.

Mr. Ash, shown at right, has done something rather remarkable here. He's combined several genres -- rom-com, sci-fi, dystopian future, mystery, character study, and maybe a few more I'll discover via a second viewing -- into a single slim-but-bracing little movie. It looks very homemade, as indeed it is. Even a few minutes into it, however, I suspect you'll be hooked. This is because, in each genre he tackles, Ash finds the one thing that makes it matter -- the humanity at the heart of it all. 2021 may be lacking in certain stylish factors, but in terms of content and characterization, this is one special movie.

Who knew that such first-rate talent existed in the Minneapolis area as leading man Clarence Wethern (above), a New Orleans-born actor who relocated to Minneapolis after most of his family lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana's loss in Minnesota's gain, for Mr. Wethern excels in every respect as John, the nerdy, exceedingly bright and maybe Asperger-tinged fellow at the center of Ash's film, who falls hard for a young lady named Emily (Bethany Ford, below) who is something of a mystery and may be every bit as problemed as is our hero.

John, you see, is something of a programming genius, who is asked by his immediate boss, as well as by that boss' boss, to solve a certain singularity problem that is looming and, in fact, is en route to be solved, perhaps by his company's competition. Setting his movie a mere seven years hence, Mr. Ash makes it unnecessary to dabble much in any special effects, for our physical lives and environments won't have changed much in the intervening time.

The filmmaker is either a very smart guy, or he and the other fellow responsible for the story here, Michael Lent, have done their research and due diligence in order to make the "science" part of the equation seem real and even somewhat understandable to the viewer. Einstein, Gödel, Turing and Kurzweil all figure into this mix, though you don't have to be a scientist to understand how and why.

More important, the human equation is always in front of us -- and just as understandable, whether it is taking the form of John's therapist (a very intriguing and humorous performance by Charles Hubble, above); his best friend, Mitch (a sleazy-but-lovable Sam Landman, below, who notes pridefully to John that, "While you were out there searching for the perfect 'ten,' I nailed five 'twos'!"). The dialog here is often quite funny and on the mark, as well.

Also on tap is John's not-particularly-to-be-trusted boss, Brandon (played with just the right amount of enthusiasm and withholding by Scot Moore, below). But finally, it is the performances of Wethern and Ms Ford that makes this movie a don't-miss. Wethern, especially, is so real and unsettling that it often hurts to watch the guy. Your heart goes out to him, even as you're eventually frightened as hell by what he might do.

One of the nicest surprises of 2021 is that you won't really know what the film is about until it's over. The workplace, a promotion, therapy, love, success, science, technology and art -- all of these swirl around as the story works its way to a climax in which everything zeros in on exposing... what? Well, among other things, the content of our character.

In my headline above, I mention that this film is a kind of Christmas present that you can't yet unwrap. Too true, since 2021 is not now available for my readers to view. A release of some sort is planned for 2015, but because I love this film so much and want to see it reach as wide an audience as possible, I am beating the drum a bit in advance here. As soon as some kind of release is scheduled, I will re-post this review, with updated info on how you can see it.

Meanwhile, get ready, eventually, for your tardy and very unusual holiday gift from Minnesota.